Just like the brochure (not): Looks nice, sounds nice, but do you believe it? Helen Fielding thumbs through four decades of glossy holiday promises

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The Independent Online
THE ALERT prospective holidaymaker leafing through the summer brochure of one of the larger tour operators a few years ago, might have noticed a rogue photo caption. Among the several hundred other sensible ones, 'The pool at the Hotel Lloret', 'The swimming pool at the Lloret Hotel', 'Lloret Hotel Pool' etc, etc, was one which said: 'Two fat Germans on a slide.'

'It kind of slipped through the net,' explained one of the writers of the brochure. 'When you're captioning 500 virtually identical photos of pools you start to feel urges to break the monotony.'

Taking the 120 million brochures churned out each year by the travel industry at face value may lead to some interesting holidays. 'There are no culture shocks in the Gambia,' promised Sunmed's '89-'90 Go Places brochure. 'It's a friendly little country where every smiling face looks like the bus conductor back home.'

A report by the environmental group Green Flag in 1993 showed that more than 50 million brochures are chucked away each year, many unopened. The mass of marketing material which has been selling package tours since their explosion in the mid-Fifties has largely disappeared into skips - a sorry loss. Racial attitudes, sexual mores, class structures, social and economic patterns, environmental changes, as well as the varying literary skills of the brochure writers, call out from the glossy pages.

Thomas Cook sowed the seeds of the modern brochure, beginning with his Excursion Advertiser, a black and white pamphlet, which promoted trips to the Great Exhibition in 1851. The Holidays With Pay Act in 1938 provided the impetus for serious holiday business, but it was not until the Fifties, with the war well out of the way, and jet travel beginning to get going, that the company transferred its advertising to a coloured magazine format. Holidaymaking first appeared in 1953. 'Holiday Recipe Ingredients,' offers one early issue. 'One blue lake, assorted mountains, snow dressing for tops of mountains, green valleys, flowers (all colours), one good hotel. To make: bake in sunshine and add . . . yourself]'

The visual style is railway- timetable-meets-dress-pattern. Holidaymakers feature for the most part in line drawings, young, fully dressed and elegantly affluent, ladies in dirndls and pearls, languid young men with cravats and cigarettes, unencumbered by families. The copy is hyperbolic: full of wonder and the joy of discovery, unfettered by the spectre of the customer complaints department. 'You really ought to see Rhineland]' 'Lucerne - Gay Swiss Resort]' 'All that the Spanish do is done with elegance]'.

Favourite adjectives are 'gay' for the resort, and, weirdly, 'limpid' for the water. The emphasis is on tradition, glamour, the Alpine resorts, the Rivieras - San Remo, Riccione. 'Doesn't the hotel look sumptuous?'

Sumptuous, yes, old certainly. There is not a modern building in sight, nor a shot of a holidaymaker interacting with a local. Company hand-holding is prominently on offer, helped by primly dressed 'hostesses'. 'John involuntarily handled the Cook's ticket case in his pocket . . .' begins a photo story describing how Cook's made life safe and easy for John and Mary on holiday.

But the triumph of sun, water and price over scenery and refinement was speedy. 'New hotels spring up overnight and they have no reputation to guard,' Cook's warns by 1957. 'What will everyone seek this year? Just one thing - a generous sun.'

The next year sees the first cover girl in a swimsuit and the first picture of a swimming pool. By 1961 new white hotels are appearing and in '63 the brochure euphemistically explains: 'Sometime ago it was Majorca that was 'away from it all'. It is so gorgeous that everyone went there and it became tremendously gay.'

Prices become bigger, photographs bluer, models closer to nakedness and in an ever-deepening shade of orange. By 1976 the talk is of 'freedom and independence', price and value. Holidaymakers, increasingly young and working class, lark around confidently with natives, hints of breasts appear in loose fitting

T-shirts. A new holiday uniform is appearing in the photographs, in bright primary colours, quite separate from everyday wear. The focus shifts from descriptions of the country, to descriptions of accommodation - what will you get for your money?

Many companies have archives going back to the Sixties and Seventies. Sexual promise progresses from the euphemism of the beach ball to the bikinied girl, legs akimbo in the sea. The 'limpid' water, with its unfortunate detumescent connotations, begins to 'sparkle' instead. Bizarre orange couples frolic together in condom-packet poses, juxtaposed alarmingly with Free Child offers.

In these brochures, introductions to the strangeness of local colour have been superimposed with awed astonishment that any of it still exists - 'here local fishermen still bring in their catch]' The 'do come' mentality is supplanted by 'No Surcharges Guaranteed' but tour operators were still getting away with 'artist's impressions' of half-built hotels. It was after all, the decade of the holiday which began with the discovery of a JCB still in the bedroom.

Brochure layout has remained remarkably unchanged since then, certainly in the mass market. The white or yellow background is still there, the unfeasibly blue and white photos, of pool, sea and apartment, the friendly local or donkey, the people who will be you or your new friends on the lovely holiday.

However, the EC Package Travel Directive, introduced last year, has tightened up the rules on misleading information to the point where in some 1994 brochures moving descriptions of sea and sunset have in places been reduced to: 'There is a rocky beach across the road, which can be busy, so take care when crossing.'

Keith Betton, of the Association of British Travel Agents, explains, 'The big change between the Seventies and the present day is that customers have become much more aware of their rights, and that the law protects them to a much greater extent. This has removed much floral decoration from brochure-speak.'

Attempts to sell the Greek islands to an already sophisticated market in the Eighties began to show companies that lowering expectations could actually make life easier. Vic Fatah and Chas Vyse, then of Sunmed holidays, now of Inspirations, were pioneers of a brutally frank style. 'We told it like was, if something was rubbish we said so,' says Vyse, recounting the tale of a decrepit Greek hotel with an owner patently suffering from dementia, which he marketed as the Hotel Fawlty.

'It sold out. The more the guests complained about the facilities, the more demented the owner became. They called him 'Basil'. We had no end of letters from satisfied customers saying they couldn't believe the place was as bad as we'd portrayed it in the brochure.'

Within the past few years tour operators have made the discovery that most holidays are booked by women. The result - the disappearance of the bronzed beauty on the cover, in favour of the happy family. And how many times this year, among the myriad apartment interiors shown, can you spot a kitchen?

'How many disabled people do you see in brochures?' asks Keith Betton, of ABTA, 'and how many black people, unless they're serving drinks?' Alison Stancliffe, of Tourism Concern, which promotes awareness of the effects of the tourist industry on host countries, says, 'Local people are usually presented either as in a servile position or as objects of exotic interest. It gives holidaymakers a distorted view, which doesn't help them or anyone else when they get there.'

There are signs that such opinions may herald a welcome change. Some brochures are already suggesting ways to give something back as part of the package. CV Travel offer schemes to clear up beaches in Corfu. Inspirations ask visitors to India to donate money and clothes to local children's charities.

The biggest brochure trend at the moment, though, is fragmentation. Thomsons alone has more than 14 different brochures for 1994 ranging from 'Small and Friendly' to, er, big. Companies have become self-conscious about cliche. Chas Vyse, of Inspirations, has a programme built into a computer which asks the brochure writer 'Are you sure?' whenever they attempt to use the words colourful, bustling, golden, lapped, fascinating or majestic. 'There may well be a golden sand beach lapped by a shimmering blue sea next to a fascinating colourful, bustling, market beneath majestic mountains, but you can't use that description because the business has already debased it.'

The curious result of the fragmentation and cliche-watching, though, is more desperate forays than ever into the realm of creative writing. The writers of this year's Italian Escapades brochure have been tireless in their quest for new countryside adjectives: 'delightful countryside', 'enchanting countryside', 'exquisite countryside', 'breathtaking countryside', 'blissful countryside', 'strikingly beautiful countryside', 'beautiful rolling countryside', 'superb distinctive countryside', 'most glorious countryside', all appear within a few pages, before you even start with 'Tuscan countryside' and 'surrounding countryside'.

This year's Club 18-30 brochure has got itself so far into an imaginary world of ravespeak: 'Take a little attitude, make a statement,' it exhorts. 'Life isn't a rehearsal - Hit the ground running]' It claims that Tenerife is suddenly, somehow, 'breaking the barriers of light and sound', and a boat trip has become a 'journey into the Third dimension'.

With companies ever more concerned to signal drawbacks without wishing to put you off altogether, euphemism is as healthy as ever: avoid like the plague any description with the word 'vibrant' this year - it means Ambient Sounds under your room all night. 'Rapidly developing resort' still means cranes; 'A good base for exploring further afield' - dull as a brick; 'Ideal for sunworshippers', as ever, means 'Absolutely nothing else to do'.

For all the directives about true representation, within the last couple of years a major company has been in trouble for turning black Canaries sand golden yellow. Inghams and Sunworld have both managed to feature the same couple in the sea on the inside cover of their current Canary Island brochures, suggesting that the Canaries must be very uncrowded indeed. One thing, in fact, you can be sure of, is that if you see a caption saying 'Two fat Germans on a slide', that's probably exactly what it is.

(Photograph omitted)